When you want to create photos with a bit more originality, one of the easiest ways is just to change your perspective. Framing techniques are a way to do this.
No, I don’t mean the art of mounting wooden frames around your printed photos and putting them above your mantelpiece for everyone to admire. And by frame, I don’t mean everything the photo contains (photos are sometimes called frames by photographers).
We are talking about framing compositions. In this article we’re going to look at what framing is and how you can start including it in your photographs – with lots of photo examples to help you visualize what I mean!
What is Framing and Why is it Useful?
In this image, the man is framed both by the window behind him, and the walls and roof around him.
Yes, I just said framing isn’t mounting your photos in a frame. But with framing compositions the effect is similar. Essentially we’re trying to enclose our subject in a frame - but within the photograph itself.
Why is framing a useful technique?
1. Directing Attention - Framing can help direct attention to the subject of your photo – whether that’s a person, a landscape or an object, by including it within the frame composition. Frames help to naturally draw the eye to their contents.
Here although there are other things in the photo, the frame of the structure helps draw our attention to the person perching on the wall.
2. Change of Perspective - The “frame” itself can give a different perspective for the viewer. If they are looking through a frame in the image it can give you a better sense of place and conjure up feelings of being an observer, or in a particular place in the scene.
This is a very loose frame only having two sides, but they help to frame the beach scene, and make us feel like we are observing from the beach bar.
3. Story Telling - If the framing device is an object such as a window, hole or bars, the viewer can tell something about the frame itself, adding to the story that your photo is telling.
The choice of framing here helps with a narrative. We can see outside, but what’s the boy’s story?4. Compositional Balance - Finally, framing can be used to add balance to your photos, by filling in empty space and adding form and focus to your image.
Here leaves provide a rough frame for the temple. Without these, it would just be plain sky. The leaves make the composition and help to draw the eye to the centre of the image.
You can use any shape of frame in your photograph. A continuous and regular frame, like a picture frame or a porthole will create a strong effect. But any kind of shape works.
You don’t need to completely surround your subject with a frame. Sometimes a partial frame still creates the same effect, your eye will still be drawn to the middle of the enclosed area.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that a frame has to be made up of the same thing, like an object or structure. Although that works well, you can combine anything in your scene to make a frame for the subject. Framing can even work with just two lines on either side of the subject, in the right situation. Some frames can be very subtle – it can be a good exercise to look through photographs from anywhere, and see if you can spot framing at work.
In this landscape framing of the mountains is achieved through both the beach below, and the branches above.
Framing Can Tell a Story
The frame that you use can give the viewer more information about the photo, convey a mood, or a sense of place. Look at how you can use different framing devices to tell a story, make the viewer feel like they are in the scene, or add an interesting extra element to your photograph.
For example, if your framing device is a keyhole, you could conjure up thoughts of spying or secrecy about the subject within the frame. A weathered wooden window-frame with a street scene outside could indicate we are in an old town building. Leaves and branches framing a countryside scene make us feel like we are closer in the nature. A subject framed between bars might make us think of a cage or prison. We can use framing to add in extra levels of intrigue, information and storytelling to our photos – or simply to look good!
An example of an irregular frame, and what the heck is it? It’s actually a sculpture made by this artist – sometimes some context can help!
Devices You Can Use for Framing
Now we know some ways to frame, let’s look at some framing devices – the things that we can use to create frames in the first place. As I said before, you can make frames from anything, but these are the easiest and most common framing devices that you can put to practice straight away.
The simplest way to use framing…. is to look for literal frames!
Windows and open doors act as perfect framing devices. Simply take your photo keeping the frame of the window or door in shot, with your subject visible through the gap. Light can also help with your photograph in these situations, as it will usually be shining through the opening, creating a contrast between interior and exterior - or illuminating your subject.
A doorway provides a perfect framing device for the monk inside. Note that the frame is only one small part of the overall image but helps to focus your attention on the subject.
Closed doors can still be used for framing, if you include the door-frame in the photo and put your subject in front of the door. Windows and mirrors can also be used as framing devices to photograph reflections. Photograph the entirety of the window/mirror, leaving some space around the edges so it’s clear for the viewer what they are seeing.
An example of framing with a reflection – the city of Sydney – giving an interesting perspective on a typical city skyline.
Expanding on doors and windows, you can take anything which creates a frame by itself. Architecture is full of useful tools for framing, for example arches and bridges. Look for any structure with gaps or holes in its makeup – and then see if you can get any good photos by using those holes as the basis for a framing composition.
I used a bridge for framing the stage in the art deco town of Napier, New Zealand.
In the natural world it’s harder to use framing in the same way as artificial constructs, as nature is less regular in shape. Usually in the wild you have less opportunities to surround you subject with a natural object – but it’s still possible. Doing a traditional frame shot like through a window could be achieved through gaps in foliage or branches for example.
One exception is rocky terrain, as rocks or rock formations can form into many wonderful shapes which can be used in framing. Caves in particular are perfect for framing, as they form natural arches or ovals.
Looking out from dark caves usually makes the entrance silhouetted which can be quite effective.
Using plants or trees as framing devices to help balance the composition and draw the eye to the subject is a common technique used by landscape photographers. When you are at a scenic location, look around and see if there are any low-hanging trees or other hanging foliage around near where you want to take your photo. Go over to them and get behind the foliage. Now experiment and use gaps in the foliage to get your photo – trying to use branches, trunks, stems or leaves to help to frame your scene. You may only be able to include them in the tops or sides of the photo, but combined with the rest of the scene it can give a nice natural perspective.
Low hanging willow trees help to provide great framing for this mountain scene in Queentown, New Zealand.
Framing devices don’t have to be static. The inside of a barrel wave makes for an amazing framing device to capture a surfer within it. A break in the middle of a waterfall could act as a frame for someone standing in the gap.
Light and Color
Sometimes you don’t need a physical object to frame a subject. Light can also act as a frame – for an extreme example, imagine a spotlight on a dark stage – an actor is framed by the circle of the spotlight. The key is contrast – using different tones to create a frame. You can use color in the same way by looking for contrasting colors which help to make frames around your subject.
This photo combines both typical framing along with contrasting light between the frame, surroundings and subject, helping her to really stand out.
Other Framing Devices
Once you get used to making framing compositions, you will start spotting opportunities to use it everywhere. As long as it’s framing your subject, you can use anything! Gates, holes in fences, lines of pillars, twisting sculptures, rainbows. A circle with your thumb and finger, a picture frame, streetlamps composed just so, a child crawling through a playground tunnel, a hundred umbrellas surrounding one man without one. Sometimes framing happens through chance and you have to jump on it. At other times you can go looking for framing compositions at your leisure.
Bars on the frame of this man’s cycle rickshaw frame his face.
You’ve Been Framed!
Framing is a simple technique that is very effective. The easiest way to learn is just to start using it in your photographs. Take a look through photos online or in magazines, and see if you can find framing at work in any of those.
This pavilion frames the city scene whilst also giving the sense of being an observer in the scene.
Sometimes framing is subtle, and the more you get an eye for it, the more you will find yourself subconsciously using it to help with your compositions. I hope you found this useful and look forward to seeing your framing in action!About the author: Alan Stock is a photographer and game designer based out of the United Kingdom.